Photo: Getty Images/UFC
As the fourth season of Dana White's Contender Series wraps up, three observations come to mind. First, MMA on Tuesday nights is fun to watch, coming long enough after the weekend to avoid burnout, but not so late in the week that it interferes with bigger, better cards. Second, fighters crying about family death and personal tragedy doesn't mix well with the sport, and does a horrible job of promoting new stars. And last, Dana White really, really sucks at handing out contracts to the right people.
In fact, White is looking for almost the exact opposite qualities that he should be. The way to get a contract on the show is quite simple: achieve a flashy or dominant finish. On paper, this doesn't seem so bad, does it? After all, the UFC is supposed to be about “killers” or whatever White claims it is.
However, there are two crucial problems with this method that White either hasn't figured out, or simply doesn't care about.
1. Finishes are more a function of the losing fighter being weak than the winner being strong.
2. Finishes tell us far less about a fighter than a match that goes the distance.
Let's examine both of these points, with examples, starting with the idea that finishes are more about the opponent being bad. Defeating a solid, skilled foe in MMA is hard enough as it is, and finishing them in 15 minutes or less is harder yet. Even many of the Top-10 divisional elite, especially below 205 pounds, end up beating lower-regarded opponents by decision. Guys and girls are just too tough, well-rounded and skilled at a high level to finish, no matter how good one may be. Consider how many decisions Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones had during their championship runs.
However, beating a foe with a glaring, obvious weakness? That's vastly easier, and one doesn't even need to be necessarily good to do it. Watching DWCS, virtually all the finishes fall into this latter category. Consider Jared Vanderaa beating Harry Hunsucker a few weeks ago. Hunsucker came in on short notice and had notoriously dreadful cardio even before then, as this fight against Don'Tale Mayes attests.
Vanderaa didn't do anything amazing to finish Hunsucker. On the contrary, he was taking a lot of blows early in the first round while offering little offense of his own. Instead, he waited all of three minutes for Hunsucker to completely gas out and be a sitting duck. Virtually any half-competent heavyweight would have stopped Hunsucker at that point. Vanderaa didn't prove he was a “killer” here so much as Hunsucker showed he had only three minutes of cardio. Nevertheless, Vanderaa was given a contract.
Quick finishes in particular often tell us very little about the fighter. With Vanderaa, we only learned that he has more than three minutes of cardio, can weather a few wild, unscientific punches, and has a rudimentary ground game. Consider the fighters who were given a contract after a flying knee. What does that strike really tell us? Only that the fighter is capable of an athletic, dynamic, low-percentage strike that caught their opponent by surprise, but little beyond that. No matter how good one's flying knee, it's simply not going to work in the vast majority of fights, especially against more skilled opposition. It's neither a predictor of future success nor of finishes. Similarly, consider Uros Medic's knockout victory over Mikey Gonzalez early this season. Medic showed that he has striking skills, but anyone who has watched him on tape already knew that. The concern was with his wrestling, size, and strength, as even in regional Alaskan MMA against journeymen opponents, Medic was taken down at will by almost everyone he faced. That aspect of his game, however, wasn't going to be tested by Gonzalez, an opponent whose wrestling is also weak. Indeed, we didn't learn anything new about his takedown defense in the roughly two minutes the fight lasted. Medic received a contract nonetheless, over far more experienced and well-rounded winners.
It should be clear who I think are the best fighters to sign: men and women who have a hard battle lasting all 15 minutes against a difficult, dangerous foe that showcases their striking, wrestling, clinch work, cardio, and mental toughness. Yet those are the exact people White spurns, while the former boxercise instructor gives them idiotic advice about how they lack a killer instinct.
A notorious example is Brendan Loughnane, who competed in Season 3 last year. One of the most skilled and accomplished fighters in the history of the Contender Series, he wasn’t offered a contract after failing to finish Bill Algeo, himself one of the better fighters that episode. Worse, Loughnane even had the gall to use his brain in the fight, wisely shooting a late takedown to seal the victory, instead of engaging in a wild exchange of haymakers like a drunk at the local bar. Dana White delivered his “killers” speech here, which was a true sight to behold; the indolent multimillionaire who never had a professional fight in his life lecturing a warrior who urinated blood after the fight about being a badass. Loughnane, who incidentally came into that fight on a streak of six straight finishes, has my respect for keeping his cool.
Amusingly, Algeo was later brought into the UFC, where he gave Ricardo Lamas a competitive battle that also went to decision. I guess Lamas, an outstanding fighter who battled Jose Aldo for the featherweight championship at UFC 169 and was ranked in the Top 10 of the division for years, lacks that “killer instinct” too?
Of course, since Loughnane never made it back to the UFC but instead signed with the Professional Fighters League, there is an argument that the organization didn't miss out on a skilled or exciting addition to the roster with White's choice. To that end, consider Daniel Rodriguez, also from Season 3. A highly skilled veteran with good kickboxing, he was matched up with Rico Farrington, a welterweight who stands a surreal 6-foot-4 and has an absurd 79 inches of reach—taller and longer than most heavyweights. Needless to say, Farrington presents a match-up problem for virtually any other 170 pounder on the planet. He was also improving fight by fight and hadn't lost in five years.
So what did Rodriguez do? He fought a very skilled, smart bout where he avoided Farrington's weapons in the stand-up, used his movement and defense, and mixed his striking with takedowns to win a clean 30-27 decision. Naturally, White had no interest in signing him, despite Rodriguez displaying far more ability than most contract winners.
At the time, White's comments about Rodriguez not being a finisher or exciting might even have sounded plausible, but luckily we got to find out. Brought in as a late replacement against Tim Means earlier this year, Rodriguez shocked the veteran, beating him up with strikes before tapping him with a standing guillotine. Rodriguez is currently 3-0 in the UFC, dominating Gabe Green and then scoring another highlight reel finish of Dwight Grant in one of the most thrilling one-round showdowns of the year. Yet due to White's incompetence in handing out contracts, the UFC might have easily lost such a good fighter to Bellator MMA, the PFL, or another organization. It was mere luck that Rodriguez was available and could fill in on short notice.
There is so much MMA talent that wants to be in the UFC that the Contender Series will continue to sign quality fighters in spite of White. However, thanks to his flawed decision-making process, the UFC head is signing a worse crop from the show than he could be.